This will be a blog post with a few bullet point lists. That is often a sign of not having fully absorbed the material or not being willing to aim it at a very particular audience or readership when one creates such a list. A well written prose paragraph has many advantages. The real lead in this story consists of a seven point bullet list below the big group of pictures. I have my reasons for burying it a little bit. But any reader may skip to it and find the points that I think I most have to offer this discussion of North Korea.
I realize that only the President of the United States can deal with the US foreign policy as regards North Korea. I also know that there have been many surprised by both the ICBM capacities of North Korea among those in intelligence and among media experts reporting on North Korea. Articles discussing this gap in knowledge and it meaning can be found here and here. beyond merely being an ICBM program the North Koreans of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea have demonstrated a mobile ICBM program. Mobile ICBMs are harder to wipe out completely as they can be continuously moved. In addition, North Korea has a network of fortified tunnels as a large part of it defense obsession — probably a tiny percentage of these can accommodate the huge trucks that carry these ICBMs, but if they have 1,000s of miles of tunnels (and I have heard credible reports and seen images that make my believe that they do then perhaps they have a few hundred or even a hundred mile of key tunnels ready to accommodate these large vehicles and help them move in and out of air attacks and back and forth to different launch sites. Whether they can miniaturize atomic warheads, guide ICBMs to precise targets for small scale nukes and how long it will take them increase the range to affect not only Alaska but the rest of the United States — these are things we cannot now be sure about.
America has strong and historic interests and some or other treaty obligations in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan. None of these countries is in exactly the same state of being nor the same relationship with the United States. But they are real and important interests. President Donald James Trump is facing new challenges with North Korea as manifest in their ICBM test. His tweets on the occasion of the recent test do reveal something about what is on his mind.
North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea….and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!
I think that there are lots of good reasons to seek to cooperate with China in meeting the North Korean threat, lots of great things about China generally and lots that the U.S.A. and China can do at people to people, business to business, military to military intelligence to intelligence, and at the highest levels of government. But I also believe that while academic, religious and commercial outreach to China is in the interest of all Americans and of the Chinese we should remember that they see the Korean Peninsula and the Yellow Sea very differently than we do and that they are a very different country.
Yantai where I lived and taught in China was 258 miles from the Capital of North Korea and about 200 miles from the relevant part of the Korean coast for accessing North Korea. It was there that I lived and had a chance to observe the way that North Koreans interacted with their neighbors from China, South Korea and Russia within the context of Chinese society. It also was a good place to observe how Chinese and China’s government viewed Korea. However, that was in 2004 and 2005 and so many things will have changed. Most things have changed in ways that are less promising for the kinds of pro-American visions I could see as worth working for at the time. But some underlying conditions are the same.
However, I think that the main thing I learned from interacting with North Koreans and those who knew them when I lived in Yantai, China is that they are stuck in ways and to a degree that virtually non of our rhetoric allows for…
Public rhetoric and internal agency policy may be different but when rhetoric goes on for decades it is policy.
1.North Korea is a racially and ethnically hyper-conscious regime that sees in the mingling allowed in South Korea a kind of defeat that makes their regime superior. This is rooted in Korean history.
2. China and Russia both use North Korea as an actual and potential cat’s paw for confrontation with the United States. They wish a force to balance US interests in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines and North Korea fills that bill.
3.Korea’s economy is crippled in large part because it spends so much on defense — perhaps more as a percentage of GDP than any other country in the world. That is more of a factor than any other aspect of their many problems.
4.Their economic crisis and international sanction regimes which never ends keeps them dependent on private funds from all secret enemies of the USA, aid from China, aid from Russia (mostly employment and covert aid) and involvement in activities not allowed by international law .
5. The ongoing crisis keeps the centralization of power a practical arrangement and China will not easily allow a collapsed state with millions of refugees into China or an American led invasion of the north.
6. They do realize war with the USA could be as close to suicide as one can get but they hope to deter it without losing their position and they have made decades of preparations including very sophisticated worldwide networks of operative of many kinds, cyberwar capacity, a hope to blackmail key players in crucial Asian countries, networks of fortified tunnels, massive artillery arrayed against South Korea, propaganda assets ready to deploy misinformation and the cultivation of huge units prepared for suicide missions.
7. It is certain that we do not hear reporting here on there most unique human assets and whether that is good or bad I am not sure but the absence of such reporting makes those same assets more impressive to those with whom they interact daily. In another way of saying it, they seem like invisible supermen because nobody talks about them and when they show up in any setting that makes them more credible.
We think far too much of North Korea as isolated and its leadership as crazy. That is pleasant for us. But we have to tell our military that they may have to fight, kill and die for a conflict with a less isolated and crazy regime than they have been told they were fighting. Battle commanders can tell young infantry whatever it takes to get them fired up in the field but North Korea is a regime supported by many in South Korea as an alternative to total American dominance int he region my guess is as many as 25% would rather have North Korea continue to exist than have a Western Dominated Korean Peninsula. The Chinese and the Russians will never really support a Greater South Korea solution. North Korea has support from terrorist networks, despots and isolated states who want their weapons and expertise and are willing to return favors for such help with their own problems. There are also many Koreans who would like to see a new kind of North Korea or united Korea more like the South Korean Republic of Korea but find almost nothing helpful from the West in that decades long struggle. I support with passion a US military presence in the Far East. As corrupt as I find our society to be it still offers some support to Christians, orderly world commerce, women’s institutions, and Americans traveling abroad. Those are all things worth fighting for. But Korea is deeply rooted in a sense of its own Korean race, culture and tradition on both sides of the DMZ. They also have deep traditions of meaningful ties to China and Japan. Those relationships are ancient and profound and full of chapters of problems we can legitimately exploit to gain Korean support but most Koreans see their country in terms of being between those two countries in lots of meaningful ways.
So there is very little chance of mobilizing a sense of wiping out the crazy North Korean regime. The regime is often able to exploit our very poor understanding of the situation. Their commitment involves millions of people including skilled linguists with athletic ability and cosmetic surgery planted across the world. It includes hundreds of thousands perhaps even millions who are by Western standards chronically suicidal. In addition there are things they are right about and we are wrong about. They do some things well and cherish some great values. Yes they have a society of mass killings, brutal slavery, incredible militarism and other horrors but they are a society full of millions who love their country and culture and who see that that they have patiently worked for and waited for a process of peaceful unification. They are real people in a real country whom we will have to interact with as such.